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Lessons from the life of Panther leader Huey P. Newton


Published Feb 9, 2012 8:52 PM

Dr. Huey Percy Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was born in Monroe, La., on Feb. 17, 1942, the youngest of seven children born to Walter Newton and Armelia Johnson.

Walter Newton was a hardworking southern African American. According to Huey, “During those years in Louisiana he worked in a gravel pit, a carbon plant, in sugar cane mills, and sawmills. This pattern did not change when we moved to Oakland.” (Revolutionary Suicide, 1973)

“As a youngster,” Newton continued, “I well remember my father leaving one job in the afternoon, coming home for a while, then going to the other. In spite of this, he always found time for his family. It was always high-quality time when he was home.”

Newton also mentioned that his father was a Baptist minister in Louisiana and in Oakland, Calif., where the family settled in 1945. Oakland was a center of African-American migration during the 1940s. War production had opened up new jobs for the working class.

Newton became alienated from his teachers and educational administrators in the Oakland public school system. He rebelled as an individual, fighting and defying his instructors.

Newton wrote that in his last year in high school, he was functionally illiterate. However, his older brother, Melvin, helped him develop an interest in reading. He studied Plato and Aristotle, became a ferocious reader, and took up sociology and law in Oakland City College.

Nonetheless, Newton became involved in petty hustling to raise money and so he could have leisure time to read books and enjoy time free from work. Eventually he landed in Alameda County Jail in 1964. In 1965 when he got out of jail, he began to hang out with Bobby Seale, whom he had met earlier.

Becoming disenchanted with existing groups they were active in, the two aimed at forming an organization that would rely on the most oppressed segments in the African-American community. Newton wrote, “None of the groups were able to recruit and involve the very people they professed to represent — the poor people in the community who never went to college, probably were not even able to finish high school.”

Origins of the Black Panther Party

The concept of the Black Panther Party grew out of the Civil Rights struggles in Lowndes County, Ala., in 1965-66. Founded after the March 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization made an attempt to form an independent, Black-led political party in opposition to both Democrats and Republicans.

Local activists started the LCFO in cooperation with organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael and other activists were instrumental in formulating LCFO’s tactics and strategy.

The concept spread, and by 1966 the Alabama Black Panther Party had been established. The organization took up arms in defense of the right of African Americans to organize and to vote. The presence of armed African Americans caught the imagination of youth around the country. Soon Black Panther organizations existed around the United States.

Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland in October 1966. In California by early 1967, at least three different groups were organizing around the Black Panther symbol. By 1968, in a complicated set of historical circumstances that extend beyond the scope of this article, the most well-known and predominant group within the Black Panther movement centered around Newton and Seale.

During this period the prevailing philo­so­phy of nonviolent resistance came under ideological attack within the African-American community. Rebellions erupted in hundreds of cities between 1963 and 1968.

On Oct. 28, 1967, Newton, then Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party, was involved in a shoot-out with police; one officer was killed and another wounded. Newton was also seriously wounded and spent nearly three years in the California prison system.

Growth & repression of the Panthers

During Newton’s 1967-1970 incarceration, the BPP grew into a national organization, headquartered in Oakland and encompassing some of the most revolutionary men and women. The FBI, under the administrations of both Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, in collusion with local cops, declared war on the Panthers and other revolutionary African-American organizations. In that war the police, with FBI coordination, killed dozens of BPP members, arrested and framed-up hundreds on fabricated criminal charges, and drove others underground or into exile.

Such pressure from the federal government led to major political splits within the BPP between 1969 and 1971. In 1969, Stokely Carmichael resigned along with many of his supporters. In 1971, there was a split between Newton and Eldridge Cleaver and their respective supporters.

These developments occurred simultaneously with major restructuring of the U.S. labor force. Production facilities that had employed African Americans post-World War II began to relocate outside urban communities to small towns and other states.

Newton’s tragic death in 1989 must be viewed in this context. The leader, who had been hounded for years by Oakland authorities, was killed there on Aug. 22. His death was the result of his involvement with crack-cocaine drug use, which had devastated the African-American community throughout the country during the late 1980s.

Nevertheless, the Black Panther Party’s example remains a high point in the overall struggle against national and class oppression. The Panthers’ impact and their uncompromising challenges to the system of capitalist exploitation influenced other oppressed nations, including Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asians, Native peoples and radical whites.

Today the need for revolutionary organizations is just as important as, if not more than, it was in the 1960s and 1970s. With the decline in wages and the rise of social misery among the working class and impoverished, it is only through the fundamental transformation of U.S. society that the majority of people inside the country and internationally will be totally liberated.